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by Josh Friedberg
For many, Peter, Paul & Mary were the most accessible entry point for the folk revival of the 1960s. Surprisingly, this remained true in the decades following, and part of this has to do with their participation in children’s music with two similarly titled albums.
I grew up on ‘60s folk music, and these were the two albums of theirs I grew up listening to the most. To be fair, I grew up with the Peter, Paul & Mary of PBS specials in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so my interaction with their music was different from most of their fans. This meant that I played the 1993 children’s album that they did, Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too, more than the original Peter, Paul and Mommy from 1969, and while both have their moments of beauty and pleasantness, I prefer the ‘90s album, partly because it has more songs geared towards adults, including Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty,” though it also has moments much more targeted at kids.
Peter, Paul & Mary were actually a group put together by folk manager Albert Grossman in the early ‘60s, which makes their longevity all the more surprising. I remember reading in an obituary for Mary Travers in 2009 that the group won five Grammy awards during their initial reign in the ‘60s, the final one being for the 1969 children’s album. In the 2004 DVD, Carry It On: A Musical Legacy, Peter Yarrow talks about how from the beginning, the group put children’s songs on all their albums, including “It’s Raining” and “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” both reprised on the 1969 album.
When I was a kid, I very much enjoyed Peter, Paul & Mommy, and to this day I find it less stiff and more playful than some of their popular records from earlier in the decade, including their versions of Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” The song that stood out for me the most was their opening version of Tom Paxton’s “The Marvelous Toy,” about a mysterious play object: “It went ‘zip’ when it moved and ‘bop’ when it stopped, ‘whirr’ when it stood still/ I never knew just what it was, and I guess I never will.”
Last year I purchased an original vinyl copy of the album (I grew up with it on cassette), and I noticed the influence of rock on the album’s “concept”: the first side of the record is labeled “Toy Side,” with the second side the “Zoo Side.” As with a lot of concept albums, multiple songs don’t fit in with these concepts, but despite the “Toy Side” being less consistent in theme, it is more consistent in quality. It sounds more uniform, in a pleasant way, whereas the “Zoo Side,” which consists of songs about different creatures (including the mythical “Puff”) contains a couple of short songs that break up the pace of the album, and not always in a good way.
I would rate the album 3 out of 5 stars today, as it is overall quite enjoyable but sometimes more inconsequential than the later children’s album. Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too was compiled from a PBS concert special taped in 1992, the year of the L.A. Riots, which informs my reading of it today. I don’t remember what tracks on it stood out for me then, but today I can appreciate the mix of childlike whimsy and more adult social consciousness.
Look at the above video clip of that concert. Can you imagine a more out-of-place scene amid the popular music of the time? In fact, you wouldn’t expect an album of a group relegated to the status of ‘60s nostalgia relics to be worth much of anything in 1993, especially when ’92 and ’93 yielded landmark albums by the likes of Dr. Dre, R.E.M., Liz Phair, the Wu-Tang Clan, Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Rage Against the Machine, the latter of which took a much angrier political stance in the wake of the rebellions in Los Angeles than Peter, Paul & Mary could have. Nonetheless, the album makes a compelling, though sometimes problematic, listen, when taken seriously for its political content.
‘90s ideas of colorblindness—as in, we’re all the same on the inside, so let’s not acknowledge anything in terms of race—are all over this album, and though I can still enjoy the playfulness in a song like “Inside,” co-written by Noel Paul Stookey, it seems to overlook socially constructed issues of difference in a problematic way. I should note, however, that I found out that in the original, longer PBS special, they performed Pete Seeger’s “All Mixed Up,” which celebrates differences between cultures (though perhaps uncritically): “Take a tip from la belle France: vive la difference!”
When I was a kid, ideas of colorblindness very much appealed to me, but after having taken several classes around issues of race at a liberal arts college, I can see where they are problematic: proponents of colorblindness ignore inequality while unintentionally making it worse. Of course, this a children’s album, so perhaps children should not be expected to digest anything rebellious or “unsafe,” but I’ve noticed over the years how my reaction to the album has changed overall with my growing awareness of racial issues.
Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too is also full of mythical creatures (not only in “Puff” but also the personified “Fox” and the mermaid offspring in “The Eddystone Light”) that appeal to children, but it also takes on social issues in “Pastures of Plenty” and a mournful “We Shall Overcome,” two of my favorite tracks on the album. The most childlike (childish?) moment on the album is an extended version of “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” complete with Stookey impersonating Elvis Presley singing about a spider.
But silliness or none, there’s something that keeps me coming back to this album. Maybe it’s sentimental nostalgia for a sense of childhood stability (that may or may not have ever existed), but again, my favorite tracks are generally the more adult-friendly ones with social consciousness, though “Puff the Magic Dragon” and Travers singing to her granddaughter on “Poem for Erika/For Baby” are lovely and enjoyable as well.
I sense that I hear something in their version of “Pastures of Plenty” that nobody else on the planet hears. Their voices sound more ragged than they did in the ‘60s, the anger sounds a little more palpable than it could have then, and their singing about migrant farmers fighting for rights surprisingly fits with a kind of campfire arrangement with banjo and quiet percussion. I find it compelling, possibly because I heard it a lot growing up and I can’t judge it “objectively.” And more than any other track, this is the moment I keep coming back to.
Today I would give this album 3.5 stars out of 5, and believe it or not, I still listen to it somewhat regularly.
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